ALBANY – You can point to his stats, to his ability to score and his ridiculously accurate free throw percentage, as to why Kahlil Dukes arrived at this point – as one of the best men's basketball players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
But Dukes finds his success not in his smooth shot or in his acute passing skills. Rather, his success flows from positive energy and lots of love. It comes from his teammates "letting me be me, on and off the court," he said.
The redshirt senior guard for the Niagara University Purple Eagles was named men's basketball Co-Player of the Year along with Canisius forward Jermaine Crumpton by the MAAC Friday morning. It was the first time in the league's 37-year history that voting for player of the year has ended in a tie.
Western New York cleaned up on the conference hardware with Niagara's Victoria Rampado winning the women's Player of the Year while Canisius freshman Takal Molson was the men's Rookie of the Year.
Dukes, a native of Hartford, Conn., transferred to Niagara after his sophomore season at the University of Southern California. He sat out a year per NCAA rules and has helped the Purple Eagles put together one of the best seasons on Monteagle Ridge in recent years.
"Basketball was my true love and I felt in L.A. that love being taken away from me," Dukes said. "I wanted to go somewhere to play the game I love and Niagara gave me that opportunity. They supported me the whole way.
"On and off the court, they never gave me any negativity or bad criticism or anything like that. It was just constructive criticism and they always had my best interest. It was always love between me and my teammates and between me and my coaches. I really wouldn’t have this award without them.
"It's all about good energy and love. I think we carried those traits though the season. That's why we've been successful thus far and I think it's going to help us be successful going forward."
The Purple Eagles finished the regular season with their most overall wins (19) and conference wins (12) in five seasons. They earned the No. 3 seed and will face Fairfield at 7 p.m. Saturday in the MAAC quarterfinal.
Dukes finished the regular season ranked second in the conference in scoring (21.1 ppg) and first in free throw percentage (,904). He scored 20-plus points 21 times and twice dropped 30-plus.
While Dukes was winning on the men's side, senior Rampado was taking home Player of the Year honors on the women's side.
Rampado became Niagara's all-time leading scorer this season, passing Eva Cunningham's record of 1,753 points set in the 2004-05 season. Oh, and her 41 points she dropped on Siena in a 73-68 win on Jan. 7 are the second-most points scored in a single game in program history.
"Victoria is a legend," Dukes said. "She's definitely one of the greatest players to ever play at Niagara. She's someone I admired since the day I got here. I'm just really proud of her and to be part of this, being in the same sentence as her, is a blessing as well."
Meanwhile, it was a Niagara Falls native and a Buffalo kid who helped Canisius put together one if its best men's basketball seasons in 24 years.
So don't tell Crumpton that the state of Western New York basketball is down.
"I really don't see that," said Crumpton, who was a standout for Niagara Falls High School. "There's a lot of talent coming out of the area. I just think this shows the type of people that are in the area – tough, gritty guys who are willing to work hard and put anything aside to help the team win."
Crumpton ranked sixth in the MAAC in scoring average (16.9 ppg) while his 525 total points are the most by a Golden Griffin senior since Billy Baron scored 821 in the 2013-14 season.
Crumpton has put up double-scoring figures in 27 straight games and ranks eighth in school history with 1,549 points entering Friday night's quarterfinal game against Quinnipiac.
Molson, a Buffalo native who played last year at TAAG Academy in Florida who can't wait until next year to shed the label of "freshman" has never lacked in confidence.
"In the back of my head, I was thinking I would get it," Molson said of earning MAAC Rookie of the Year. "But it all came down to winning as a team. I'm really blessed."
He was the league's rookie of the week four times, scored 20-plus points six different times this season, and led all freshman in scoring with a 14.4 average against league opponents. While he made a splash in his collegiate debut, netting 25 points in a loss to Buffalo to set the program mark for most points by true freshman in his debut, Molson believes he got better throughout the season once he learned how to channel his confidence into unselfishness.
"Early in the season, I was pretty much just playing and not really engaged," Molson said. "As the season progressed, I got more aggressive and thought more about winning and doing what it takes to win."